Want to Be a Competitive Overclocker? Here’s How to Get Started

(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

Overclocking your CPU, RAM or GPU always boosts your performance, but what about your street cred? You can boast about your achievements to friends, but when you’re ready to show the world your skills, there’s competitive overclocking. Competitors enjoy a vast community online and at events worldwide. Of course, there are also valuable prizes for winning competitions and breaking records. Competitive overclockers’ ultimate destination is HWBot, which hosts global team and individual overclocking competitions and maintains a database of world records. Place near the top of one of its ranking boards, and you’ve made it. Read their FAQ page to get familiar with the site’s basics, like rules and requirements.

Sound exciting? For those new to overclocking or interested in competing, we’re here to help. Here are successful professional overclockers’ best tips for getting started.

Start with CPUs or RAM, not graphics cards.

Premium graphics cards are usually more expensive than CPUs or RAM kits, so you’ll be more upset if you accidentally kill one by pushing it too hard. Beyond being easier on the wallet, CPUs and RAM are also easier to overclock.

CPUs are the most popular starting point. Like other components, they also have built-in safety features, like thermal throttling, to help avoid damage from excessive voltage or inadequate cooling. In addition, keeping your CPU’s heat at bay is easier than cooling “most reference GPUs” and cheaper when you use an aftermarket cooler, according to Albrecht Mesotten, who’s been competing since 2009.

"It’s also much easier to test stability for a CPU than for a GPU with programs like Intel’s Extreme Tuning Utility and get results in minutes," he added.

You don’t need the most expensive components.

When you check out the top scores on HWbot, you’ll see premium, expensive components listed. This makes the idea of buying your way to the top enticing, but besides the fact that some of those people might get their components for free from sponsors (more on that later), overclockers we spoke to say you don’t need the priciest components to make your mark. You can also still gain points and move up the rankings with older or cheaper components. And, as we said, competitive overclocking is about more than pushing GHz, so getting the most expensive components and binning them to find the highest possible clock speeds doesn’t guarantee you victory.

For example, Mesotten points to the different skills and requirements needed for the particular benchmarks, such as choosing specific operating systems, even outdated platforms like Windows XP. One of the trickiest parts is that you need to have a multitude of operating systems available for your setup to get the best performance, he said.

And again, if you spend a lot, you’ll be that much more in the hole if a product gets damaged during testing.

You do need to go beyond air cooling.

If you're air cooling your CPU, you’ll probably hit a maximum of 4.8-5.2GHz on Intel’s 7th generation and later K-series processors, depending on your luck with the silicon lottery--variances in silicon that result in different performance among processors with the same model number. AMD’s 2nd generation Ryzen processors will reach 3.8-4.2GHz with a beefy air cooler.

If you want to go higher (including with other types of components), you need to upgrade your cooling, a milestone for serious overclockers. To be highly competitive, you’ll want to get into liquid nitrogen (aka LN2).

But you don’t have to start with LN2. Cooling is one of the biggest challenges for newbie overclockers. So, consider working your way up from air or water cooling to single stage cooling and cascade cooling before graduating to liquid nitrogen.

“Whether the new overclocker wants to do 2D processor benchmarking or 3D graphics card benchmarking, the most important aspect to overclocking is ambient cooling testing. The first step for beginners is to obtain a high-performance air cooler or some variety of liquid cooler,” David Miller, a competitor since 2010, told us.

Also, consider building your own water cooling loop. Mesotten said that, while all-in-one water coolers are nice, they don’t offer as good of performance as a custom setup.

When you’re ready, single stage cooling uses a compressor that can let you reach sub-zero temperatures—around -40 to -60 degrees Celsius (-40 to -76 degrees Fahrenheit). If you move onto cascade cooling, you can hit around - 80 degrees Celsius (-112 degrees Fahrenheit). But liquid nitrogen will let you drop your CPU temps even further to -197 degrees Celsius (-322.6 degrees Fahrenheit).

The trick is really to find each particular component that is good, and then bring them in and build something out of it.

Choose your equipment with care.

Enthusiasts are very vocal about their preferred brands. Unfortunately, there is no magic formula of brands and products that’ll guarantee a record-breaking rig. However, we did get some advice from the experts for building your overclocking system.

“It’s always good to test each individual component and then build them up. The trick is really to find each particular component that is good, and then bring them in and build something out of it. Because if you have one weak component, obviously that’s going to be your weakest link,” Joe Stepongzi, a competitive overclocker since 2009, said. “It’s usually good to test each individual component separately in some way, so we use different benchmarks to do that. Once we're happy with that, we bring them all together and put it to work.”

Choosing a CPU to overclock

Which CPU is best to start your overclocking career? Experts we spoke to recommended Intel’s K series, such as the 8700K or 9900K, which are unlocked for overclocking. Mesotten strongly advises against high-end, non-K SKU Intel CPUs, since these CPUs are locked and not as overclockable. Almost all AMD CPUs, meanwhile, have unlocked multipliers, which will help you easily bring out a few hundred MHz of extra power.

Choosing RAM

To work with a motherboard with the Z390 chipset, a popular platform for Intel overclocking, look for memory modules based on Samsung B-Die integrated circuits (ICs). This type of memory has become synonymous with high frequency, tight timings and the most efficient benchmark results, and certain XMPs (Intel Extreme Memory Profiles stored inside the actual memory, allowing users to apply rated frequency and timings) are nearly impossible to hit without Samsung B-die memory, Miller said.

8GB RAM modules with Samsung B-Die are popular and typically sold in kits of two. According to Miller, when buying RAM, the main factors to consider (besides memory size and physical features) are clock speed and timings. Depending on the operating frequency, Miller recommends looking for the following timings for a better chance of ensuring you get Samsung B-die silicon:

Swipe to scroll horizontally
RAM Maximum Clock SpeedTimings

Overclockers are picky about their RAM. Preferences vary, but you can also check out our picks for the best RAM.
Choosing a GPU to overclock

If you do eventually go down the GPU route, Stepongzi said “Nvidia GPUs are the fastest,” (which we second in our GPU Performance Hierarchy page) and points to the GeForce RTX 2080 Ti as the best. 

“Many overclockers prefer Asus because all the BIOS settings are there, and that’s the most important thing. We don’t have enough options with the standard BIOS settings,” Mesotten said.

Choosing a motherboard

Motherboard choice depends on the competition you’re entering. Consider that you can be tasked to work with older technologies, such as Slot A, the socket formerly used by AMD’s desktop Athlon CPUs.

Mesotten recommends a motherboard that gives you ample BIOS settings, and both he and Stepongzi pointed to Asus, whose ROG line is built for gaming and overclocking. Remember, it’s not just about clock speed, so you’ll want the flexibility to do things like tune memory and dial other settings to achieve winning scores.

“Many overclockers prefer Asus because all the BIOS settings are there, and that’s the most important thing. We don’t have enough options with the standard BIOS settings,” Mesotten said.

We always cover firmware and software in our motherboard reviews. For more help on choosing a motherboard, including the requirements for overclocking, check out our Motherboard Buying Guide, as well as our list of favorite motherboards.

For overclocking RAM, Miller suggests picking a motherboard with two DIMM slots for memory, which are “far superior” to four-DIMM motherboards since there’s a shorter distance between the CPU and DIMM slots.

Choosing a power supply

A decent power supply is a priority for any overclocking rig; you don’t want to be falling short on power delivery. As such, consider high-end brands, like Cooler Master, Corsair and Seasonic. Mesotten recommends a PSU with a minimum of 1,000W for overclocking a single component. But if you’re overclocking multiple graphics cards or using an extreme cooling method (like LN2), he recommends going up to 1,200W. We have a list of some of these behemoths in our picks for best PSUs.

Additionally, Stepongzi believes your PSU choice should, to a certain degree, depend on the benchmark. Depending on the benchmark, an 18-core CPU can pull 1,300-1,400 watts. You'll need a solid power supply because many will trip the OCP (overcurrent protection) at a certain wattage and shut down. For example, overclocking an 18-core CPU with liquid nitrogen can even trip a circuit breaker in a U.S. home if you have other electronics connected to the same circuit. (Pro tip: Stepongzi usually finds a separate circuit in his house to run the PSU for overclocking and connects any other electronics to a different circuit.)

Choosing cooling products

Make sure you have a good temperature meter and temperature probes (don’t forget batteries!). Stepongzi recommends the Fluke 52 II dual-probe digital thermometer.

Fluke 52 II

(Image credit: Peter Sobolev / Shutterstock)

If you plan on working with liquid nitrogen, you’ll need a dewar, which is a type of vacuum flask for storing cryogens. Stepongzi usually opts for 30-liter dewars. A dewar can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars when new, but you can find them for a couple of hundred bucks on eBay. (Warning: you may see listings discuss storing cow semen, another use for dewars). Stepongzi noted that in the U.S. you could also rent dewars from welding supply companies like Airgas.

While you’re at it, grab yourself a dewar flask for distributing liquid nitrogen, which usually occurs by pouring it from a large dewar, to a flask, and then to the "pot" that holds the LN2 and mates with the component. Also, consider buying a blow torch to heat the pot when needed.

For any subzero cooling, Miller favors Kingpin products, including its T-Rex line of CPU containers ($325-$399) and KPx thermal paste ($11.99).

Choosing SSDs

Miller recommends getting at least three SSDs. You probably won’t need more than 60GB per drive, but it’s good to get a few for storing different operating systems.

“When I use liquid nitrogen to overclock for world rankings, I will often use three or more different operating systems in one afternoon. For this reason, it is not only convenient but also necessary, to pre-load SSDs with various operating systems in order to quickly change tasks,” Miller explained.

For shopping help, use our SSD buying guide and picks for best SSDs.

It’s not just about pushing clock speeds.

The best overclockers aren’t just focused on boosting clock speeds but are also interested in demonstrating the ability to drive better performance from a system—perhaps without adjusting any voltages.

We’re planning ahead here, but to further your ranking after breaking the top 10 in a particular category, you’ll have to do tweaking that takes you beyond growing GHz. More advanced tactics, like playing with driver settings, or trying an older version of a driver or another operating system, are what it takes to cross the threshold into true competitiveness and eventually improve your ranking.

For example, Superpi 32M is a single-threaded benchmark very sensitive to memory usage and speed. Mesotten said benching it on Windows XP leads to better overclocks then benching on Windows 7. He also pointed to legacy 3DMarks where you’ll get better scores with Windows XP and Windows 7 than Windows 10, where you can expect a drop in efficiency and, therefore, your competitive score. Today’s competitive overclockers often need 32-bit and/or 64-bit versions of Windows XP, 7, 8.1 and 10, depending on the benchmark.

An example with drivers is seen in older AMD GPUs, where overclocking with an older driver can make a “huge” difference, depending on the benchmark, according to Mesotten. He noted you'd see better performance on the GPUPI benchmark with an older SDK AMD driver.

One tweak at a time.

(Image credit: Iammotos / Shutterstock)

A disappointing score may make you want to push voltage sliders to their maximum or trash your current setup and start from scratch. However, it’s better to do one tweak at a time and then test those results, rather than make multiple changes at once. Mesotten points to a triangle—speed, temperature and voltages—that you have to push, yet keep in a “safe zone” without straying too far.

“A lot of times if you change too much when you’re going through a system it ends up causing more issues, and you just bang your head everywhere,” Stepongzi said.

When you start competing, first develop some good testing practices and methods that you’ll use all the time. You can listen to others’ advice, but Stepongzi said that you need to work on this yourself a bit to “find yourself and your own setup.”

And know when to stop. If your motherboard shuts down erratically or you’re getting blue screens, it’s time to pause to avoid breakage. These things are usually a sign that condensation is forming somewhere, according to Mesotten.

For GPUs, Mesotten recommends increasing clock speeds 25Mhz at a time. Test your favorite game, and if things are stable, you can push some more.

When benchmarking, Miller said that it’s best to focus on one test at a time and learn to perfect your score by running it repeatedly before going for more aggressive overclocks. The goal is to keep the processor, memory and motherboard settings constant while you compare the scores on different operating systems and different settings within the operating system. There are many factors besides processor speed that can affect the score in Cinebench R15, for example.

“Simply comparing ... Windows 10 and Windows 7, for instance, one will find that the score on Windows 7 is substantially better. One might even see a score variance of up to 1 percent between each benchmark result without changing anything. Committing your time and energy to one benchmark and learning everything you can about it is the best way to succeed,” Miller said.

Use the overclocking community.

Overclocking communities can really help you boost your competitive edge and achieve better efficiency and scores. You can use them to find other overclockers willing to critique and advise on your set-up, testing and scores.

Check out forums, like here on Tom’s HardwareOverclock.net is also friendly for noobs and has a large and successful USA overclocking team. Also, Overclock.net is launching a new competition for both 2D (non GPU-related) and 3D overclocking in December and is encouraging beginners to join. Experts like Miller will be sharing tips and advice there.

There are also communities to tap on HWbot and even Facebook. Look for people you can relate to who aren’t against sharing information. You can also check out YouTube, including channels like Stepongzi’s Bearded Hardware.

(Image credit: Albrecht Mesotten / HWbot)

Finally, get free tips from scores posted on HWbot. Look at the screenshot for things you may not have considered, like driver versions, operating systems or tweaking tools used.

Start off with team competitions.

When you’re ready to compete for the first time, it’s better to enter a team competition instead of a solo one. You get the backing and knowledge of an entire team to help improve your best overclocks. Additionally, you’ll get access to honest feedback on whether you have a potentially winning score or not. You may think you have an idea of how you’ll rank by looking at scores already posted, but often overclockers sandbag and withhold their best scores until the competition’s about to close.

Picking a team

You can join a team on HWbot, but our experts recommend starting off on an Overclock.net team for your first time because of the site’s novice-friendly nature.

Stepongzi also recently launched a team on HWbot called Bearded Hardware specifically for people looking to learn.

When submitting scores, be thorough and share pictures.

Photo included in HWbot submission (Image credit: David Miller / HWbot)

You can find HWbot’s general rules and guidelines here. Each individual competition has its own rules and requirements, so be sure to read those thoroughly too. If you fail to meet a requirement and there’s not enough time to remedy, you may be disqualified.

But it’s not just about being eligible. HWbot is a database, so your results will be stored for a while. Producing detailed, informative submissions is a good way to make a name for yourself, especially if you’re new to the world of competitive overclocking. So be sure to share screenshots and, if possible, pictures of your system and components.

“Try to take pictures; don’t just put up a score. Most people want to see how you did it and what you’re about,” Stepongzi said.

Getting sponsored helps but comes with challenges.

Many of the best overclockers, including Miller and Stepongzi, are sponsored, which means that a component company supplies them with products, making it cheaper for them to compete. But those free components come with a lot of pressure attached. Those vendors expect you not just to win competitions, but to break world records. Meeting expectations is not easy. For example, a CPU that a company expects to run at 5.8 GHz may end up running slower thanks to the silicon lottery. Some sponsored overclockers find themselves forced to test almost nightly because if a product from another vendor is posted with a higher score, they get a call from their sponsor who always wants to hold that number-one spot. 

Still, Stepongzi, who found his first sponsor a year after competing, feels that to be really competitive, you need a sponsor. Sponsors reach out to overclockers, or you can reach out to them. But in either scenario, you’ll need proof that you have what it takes to overclock their product to the top of the record books. Being in the top 20 or top 10 in the world is a good way to get attention.

“You just need to get your name out for name recognition. it kind of works from there. The trick is to almost take anything off the bat, and work for it and show people what you can do. Because if you want to get into this world, you need to show them first,” Stepongzi said. “An opportunity can come out of nowhere; you’d be surprised.”

Scharon Harding

Scharon Harding has a special affinity for gaming peripherals (especially monitors), laptops and virtual reality. Previously, she covered business technology, including hardware, software, cyber security, cloud and other IT happenings, at Channelnomics, with bylines at CRN UK.